Madam “Ma” Rainey, as pictured in The Paramount Book of Blues, 1927. Perhaps the most flattering portrait of Rainey.
Earning the honorific “The Mother of the Blues”, Madam “Ma” Rainey is Indisputably a legend of the blues. Her jazz-inflected vaudevillian blues served to define the genre as it was to be on records and helped to pave the way for future blues recordings by male and female artists alike.
“Ma” Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886 (according to most sources, with September 1882 being another possibility). By her own account, she was born in Columbus, Georgia, though latter-day research implicates Russell County, Alabama as the place of her birth, though the former was her hometown in any event. She began her career in the show-business in her early teenage years, when she won a talent contest in Columbus. By the turn of the century, she was performing in southern minstrel shows. In 1904, Pridgett married William “Pa” Rainey and the two toured as part of the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels troupe, later forming an act called Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues. In her travels across the southern states, Rainey encountered a young Bessie Smith in Chattanooga and took her under her wing, teaching her the blues. Come December of 1923, traveled to Chicago and began recording for Paramount Records, an association which lasted through 1928 and produced nearly one hundred recordings. On records, she was accompanied at first by Lovie Austin’s Blues Serenaders, Paramount’s “house” jazz band, before beginning to front her own “Georgia Jazz Band” which at times included the likes of Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Buster Bailey, and Fletcher Henderson, with occasional collaborations with Blind Blake, Papa Charlie Jackson, and Tampa Red and Georgia Tom on the side. In the middle of the 1920s, she toured on the T.O.B.A. vaudeville circuit. After the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Rainey retired from performing and returned home to Georgia, managing two or three theaters in Columbus and Rome. Gertrude “Ma” Rainey died in Rome, Georgia on December 22, 1939.
Paramount 12252 was recorded on October 15 and 16, 1924 in New York City. Ma Rainey’s Georgia Jazz Band is made up of members of Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, including Howard Scott on cornet, Charlie Green on trombone, Don Redman on clarinet, Fletcher Henderson on piano, and Charlie Dixon on banjo. On the second date, Scott and Redman are replaced by Louis Armstrong and Buster Bailey on cornet and clarinet, respectively.
First up is “Jealous Hearted Blues”, a largely “floating verse” twelve-bar blues song containing lyrics like “it takes a rockin’ chair to rock, a rubber ball to roll,” later notably included in “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues”. It made enough of an impact to be covered by Barbecue Bob’s brother Charley Lincoln in 1927 and was later adapted by the Carter Family as “Jealous Hearted Me” in 1936.
Jealous Hearted Blues, recorded October 15, 1924 by Ma Rainey Acc. by Her Georgia Jazz Band.
On the reverse, Ma Rainey sings a legendary performance of her immortal “See See Rider Blues”—often in later years (incorrectly) called “C. C. Rider”, here erroneously titled “See See Blues” on the label. Later pressings corrected this error.
See See [Rider] Blues, recorded October 16, 1924 by Ma Rainey Acc. by Her Georgia Jazz Band.
The incomparable Blind Lemon Jefferson truly was an artist without parallel. Having cut his first disc in 1925 or ’26, he was one of the earliest male country blues musicians to record, and the success of his records paved the way for more blues artists to have their music immortalized in wax. His peculiar yet virtuosic style of singing and guitar playing set him apart from all his contemporaries, and caused him to be seldom imitated (and interestingly, many of his early imitators were white; see Larry Hensley, “Slim Jim” Debs Mays, Roy Shaffer). Considering both the quality and originality of his work, as well as the volume of his output, it would seem fair to consider Blind Lemon Jefferson one of the greatest heroes of the Texas blues.
Blind Lemon Jefferson, as pictured in the Paramount Book of Blues, 1927.
Like so many early blues people, much of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s life is shrouded in mystery. He is usually said to have been born in September 24, 1893, though he claimed a date of October 26, 1894, himself. July of 1897 has also been proffered by some sources, and his obituary suggested he was born about a decade earlier. He learned to play guitar in his childhood or teens. As an adult, he weighed about two-hundred-fifty pounds, and has been described as a snappy dresser, always wearing a John B. Stetson hat and a box-back suit from the Model Tailors in Dallas, and conversely as “fat, and a slovenly dresser.” Lemon reported his profession to census takers in 1920 as a musician, his employer the “general public,” and outside of music he was said to have worked as a wrestler in Dallas. He played and sang at functions around Freestone County and on street corners, honky tonks, and bordellos in Dallas, most notably on the east end of Elm Street called Deep Ellum, and even on the interurban railway that ran from from Waco north to Denison. He was known to have worked with Lead Belly, and may have also associated with Washington Phillips and the Dallas String Band. Like fellow Paramount artists Charley Patton and Blind Blake, only one published photograph of Lemon is known to exist (though at least one phony has been reputed as a second one, and there may well be another authentic but unpublished one in private hands).
As with his life, there is much legend surrounding the demise of Blind Lemon Jefferson. It’s known that he died on a cold winter day in Chicago—around ten o’clock in the morning on December 19, 1929. Some claim that he was poisoned by a jilted lover (much like the fate that befell Robert Johnson some nine years later). Others have supposed that he was robbed of a royalty payment and murdered by a guide hired to help him find his way to the train station. More reliable accounts suggest that he either died of a heart attack in his car and was abandoned by his driver, or became disoriented trying to find his way through a snowstorm and died from hypothermia. His death certificate stated “probably acute myocarditis,” supporting the heart attack hypothesis. In any event, Paramount Records paid for his body’s return to Texas by train, accompanied by Texas piano man Will Ezell, to be buried in the Wortham Negro Cemetery (now called the Blind Lemon Memorial Cemetery). His funeral was reportedly attended by two or three hundred people, both black and white. Lemon’s passing inspired a small wave of tributes, and Paramount released a memorial record in his honor, featuring Walter and Byrd singing “Wasn’t it Sad About Lemon” and Rev. Emmett Dickinson’s sermon on the “Death of Blind Lemon”, comparing Jefferson to Jesus Christ. Had Lemon survived into the folk and blues revival of the 1960s, his impact would likely have been enormous. Today, Lemon’s grave marker (placed in 1997) bears the epitaph “Lord, it’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you; see that my grave is kept clean.”
The tombstone of Blind Lemon Jefferson in Wortham, Texas, as it appeared eighty-eight years and one day after his death. Kept clean at the time, as it were.
Paramount 12608 was recorded around February of 1928 in Chicago, Illinois, by Blind Lemon Jefferson. It also appeared on Broadway 5059, though I’m not certain whether or not anyone has ever seen one of those, I know I haven’t. It was released that March or early April, and first advertised in the Chicago Defender on April 7, 1928.
Now, I ordinarily prefer not to make posts honoring artists on the anniversaries of their deaths, but rather to celebrate their lives; under the circumstances however, this record seems an appropriate case to make an exception, for it contains Lemon’s legendary “See That My Grave is Kept Clean”. This song, together with “Match Box Blues” and “That Black Snake Moan” could be viewed as a sort of triumvirate of Lemon’s most famous and perhaps most influential songs. A folk song sometimes known as “Two White Horses in a Line” or (in later years) “One Kind Favor”, Lemon first recorded the song in October of 1927, issued on Paramount 12585, backed with “He Arose from the Dead” under his sanctified pseudonym “Deacon L.J. Bates”. That version was pulled soon after release and replaced with “Where Shall I Be”, while Lemon recorded a new version of “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” several months later, which saw release under his own name on the record you see and hear here. Son House used the melody for his “Mississippi County Farm Blues”, which he recorded for Paramount in 1930, and many others have since performed and recorded Jefferson’s original. In 1934, John A. Lomax recorded a bottleneck guitarist named Pete Harris singing the song in Richmond, Texas, under the title “Blind Lemon’s Song”, demonstrating the impact of Jefferson’s recording, and in 1952, Harry Smith included the song in his influential Anthology of American Folk Music.
See That My Grave is Kept Clean, recorded February 1928 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.
On the reverse, technically the “A” side, keeping with the rather morbid theme, Lemon sings “‘Lectric Chair Blues”, another excellent blues, even if it lacks the same grandeur as the previous one. The original Chicago Defender advertisement said of the song: “Salty tears—wet tears—big, round tears—all kinds of tears and heart throbs, and you should put yourself in his place to feel just as blue. ‘Lectric chair is the next place he’s gonna sit down in, and he ain’t tired either, so he don’t wanta sit down.”
‘Lectric Chair Blues, recorded February 1928 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.
On November 30, we commemorate the birth of the one and only “Jazzologist Supreme,” the eccentric clarinetist Boyd Senter.
Boyd Senter was born on November 30, 1898 on a farm in Nebraska. Much like his contemporary Bix Beiderbecke, he was inspired to play jazz after hearing a record by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Like many budding jazzmen, he took up the saxophone and clarinet, and also became proficient on trumpet and banjo. Senter built his reputation on his novelty clarinet playing, and came to be known as the “Jazzologist Supreme.” His first session was with Jelly Roll Morton’s Steamboat Four/Stomp Kings/Jazz Kids, which, despite bearing his name, did not feature Jelly Roll Morton. In 1924, Senter made a number of records at Orlando B. Marsh’s Chicago-based recording laboratories, where some of the earliest electrically recorded discs were being cut. Following the Marsh recordings, Senter made a series of sides for Pathé before moving to Okeh in 1927, where he was frequently accompanied by Eddie Lang on guitar. On one session, a redo of his “Mobile Blues”, originally recorded for Marsh, everyone in the studio was reportedly so drunk that the recording was rejected (it was released in Europe, though). The next year he formed a jazz band dubbed the Senterpedes, which often included the talents of the Dorsey Brothers, Phil Napoleon, and Vic Berton. Senter and his Senterpedes moved to Victor in 1929, and among other titles, cut a jazz version of Jimmie Rodgers’ “In the Jailhouse Now”. Senter made his last recordings in Hollywood for Victor in 1930, and continued to play jazz in Detroit until the end of the Swing era, after which he turned to a life of selling sporting goods. Boyd Senter died in Oscoda, Michigan in June of 1982.
Paramount 20364 was recorded in October of 1924 by Marsh Laboratories in Chicago, Illinois, among the earliest electrical recordings made. Boyd Senter switches between clarinet, alto saxophone, and trumpet, and is accompanied by Jack Russell on piano and Russell Senter on drums.
First, the Jazzologist Supreme stomps through the raggy “Fat Mamma Blues”.
Fat Mamma Blues, recorded October 1924 by Boyd Senter.
Another of his own compositions, Senter next plays “Gin Houn’ Blues”.
Gin Houn’ Blues, recorded October 1924 by Boyd Senter.
May 15 marks the possible anniversary of clarinetist Jimmie O’Bryant’s birth, and May 20th will mark the anniversary of pianist Jimmy Blythe’s birth. Both those musicians play on this record, so I can’t think of a better time to post it.
Like a number of artists in his era and genre, details regarding the life and times of clarinetist Jimmie O’Bryant are few and far between, and the true birth date of the “mystery man of jazz” is uncertain, but when a date is ventured, it is most often cited as May 15, 1896. O’Bryant was born in either Louisville, Kentucky or somewhere in Arkansas. He took up the clarinet, playing in a style often compared to Johnny Dodds, and also played saxophone. In 1920 and ’21, he played with a band called the Tennessee Ten, and later worked with Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, and W.C. Handy. By the mid-1920s, O’Bryant was in Chicago, where he played with Lovie Austin’s Blues Serenaders and with his own washboard band, both producing records for Paramount. On Paramount, he was called “The Clarinet Wizard”. Jimmie O’Bryant’s promising career was cut short when he died of apparently unknown causes on June 24, 1928.
Paramount 12287 was recorded in June of 1925 in Chicago, Illinois. The outstanding but minimal personnel features the likes Jimmie O’Bryant on clarinet, James Blythe on piano, and Jasper Taylor on washboard. This disc has a fairly serious crack about half way into the playing surface, but I’ve done my best to digitally remove all traces of the interruption.
“Clarinet Get Away” has been cited as the earliest recorded track to use a riff resembling the one used in Joe Garland’s 1938 composition “In the Mood”, popularized by Glenn Miller and his Orchestra in 1939, which was in turn borrowed from Wingy Manone’s 1930 “Tar Paper Stomp”, but when I mentioned that tidbit on my YouTube upload of this tune, I get chewed out by a commenter calling it a “hoax” and saying that the recording “sounds very derivative”, so you be the judge. This is take 2, of two issued takes.
Clarinet Get Away, recorded June 1925 by O’Bryant’s Washboard Band.
James Blythe’s composition “Back Alley Rub” is more of a slow drag, and for better or worse, sounds nothing like “In the Mood”. This one is also take 2.
Back Alley Rub, recorded June 1925 by O’Bryant’s Washboard Band.
In celebration of the 118th anniversary of Smack Henderson’s birth, here is a record I searched for long and hard, before I was fortunate enough to find this 1940s John Steiner reissue. This near mint dub trades some of its audio fidelity for a much cleaner and smoother surface than I’d be likely to find on the original Paramount issue, which was once speculated in 78 Quarterly to have “less than ten copies.”
Paramount 14012 was recorded May 11, 1927 in New York City and was originally issued on Paramount 12486. This issue is a 1948 dub made by record collector and producer John Steiner. The band features the talent of Joe and Russell Smith on trumpet, Benny Morton on trombone, Buster Bailey and Don Redman on clarinet and alto sax, Coleman Hawkins on tenor sax and clarinet, Fletcher Henderson on piano, Charlie Dixon on banjo, June Cole on tuba, and Kaiser Marshall on drums. The label erroneously credits Tommy Ladnier, who does not play on this record.
“Swamp Blues” tops my list of all-time favorite jazz recordings, and was the reason for my purchasing the record.
Swamp Blues, recorded May 11, 1927 by Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra.
Perhaps even hotter than the previous, “Off to Buffalo” is another superb jazz side, not to be confused with the similarly titled Warren and Dubin song “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” from Forty-Second Street.
Off To Buffalo, recorded May 11, 1927 by Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra.